Review: Calling in Context

Calling in Context, Susan L. Maros. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: A work on vocational discernment that recognizes that this process is shaped by our context, our social location.

In her work as a professor of leadership in a Christian seminary, Susan Maros came to a realization as she worked with students on discerning their callings. The ways that she had learned to discern calling in her White evangelical context were not necessarily the ways calling was discerned in other racial, ethnic, and cultural settings. This led to a process of examining her preconceptions about calling.

In this book she shares her learning. To begin with, she discovered that calling took different forms in scripture. The call of Abraham, Moses, and Nehemiah were each unique. Furthermore, calling unfolds over a lifetime, even when punctuated by particular calling moments.

Social location is a critical factor in how people experience calling. Social location includes racial, ethnic, and cultural background, socioeconomic status, and gender. These shape what opprtunities are most accessible and the ones considered “off-limits.” It also affects how we “hear” a call-an inner sense, a prophetic word, the counsel of community.

The last part of the book begins with understanding how we engage power, including understanding our own power and that of our community. Part of this is discerning how power works in social systems. The journey is a long one. Maros commends establishing sustainable rhythms of work and rest, community, companions, and lament. Underlying the discernment of calling is the recognition of and living out of purpose.

The principles and insights developed in this book are illustrated throughout by calling stories of a variety of ministry leaders representing various racial, ethnic, cultural, socioeconomic, gender, and age. Maros both illustrates from and draws insights from these stories, which form an integral part of the book. All of this comes together in a message of hope in the God who meets all of us in our social locations and bids us into lives of purpose under his grace.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Reading While Black

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of biblical interpretation in the traditional Black church that emphasizes the conversation between the biblical text and the Black experience and how this sustains hope in the face of despair.

Esau McCaulley describes his journey from southern roots to white evangelicalism and progressive scholarship and back to the Black church tradition. He recognized that both evangelical and progressive traditions didn’t offer the wherewithal to deal with the Black experience of slavery and racism and to sustain hope amid despair. McCaulley found this by going back to the Black church, both its biblically rooted resistance to slavery and injustice, and its message of hope of liberation, not merely spiritual but in terms of bodily status.

McCaulley offers this description of biblical interpretation how one reads the Bible while Black:

  • unapologetically canonical and theological.
  • socially located, in that it clearly arises out of the particular context of Black Americans.
  • willing to listen to the ways in which the Scriptures themselves respond to and redirect Black issues and concerns.
  • willing to exercise patience with the text trusting that a careful and sympathetic reading of the text brings a blessing.
  • willing to listen to and enter into dialogue with Black and white critiques of the Bible in the hopes of achieving a better reading of the text.

The next six chapters address issues facing the black community and how the tradition of Black church reading of scripture addresses each. The issues are: policing, political witness, the pursuit of justice, Black identity, Black anger, and slavery. The treatments are not exhaustive but are meant to point toward the resources of biblical interpretation open to the Black community. The concluding chapter centers on hope, which is the outcome of engaging the biblical text and looking for answers to these pressing issues. A “bonus track” goes further into the ecclesial, or church-centered aspect of this approach to biblical interpretation.

I will not go through McCaulley’s discussion of the six issues but focus on the first as an example of the approach he commends. First he begins with context, and his own experience of being stopped by police while at a gas station, as he was driving friends to a party. He then turns to Romans 13:1-2, often weaponized against the Black community. He observes how we often look at the instructions for citizens without considering the powers subject to God, and why, in Paul’s context the recipients of his letter are subjected to an evil empire by God. What the passage raises is a form of theodicy. McCaulley reads this passage canonically, setting Rome alongside Pharaoh (cf. Romans 9:17) in which God is glorified through his judgment upon wicked kings. If Moses was not sinful in his resistance to Pharaoh, then submission to authorities does not preclude calling evil by its name. Furthermore, verses 3 and 4 of Romans 13 speak to the just use of authority, to reward good and punish evil, and not the reverse. Policing that treats citizens otherwise ought to be reformed. It should not engender fear in those who do right, no matter the color of their skin. McCaulley observes then that how Paul deals with the evil Roman empire is not to refer to their evil but to talk about how just rule is exercised in a way that assures rather than arouses fear in the lives of the governed who do what is right.

I look at this and ask the question of how often have I heard the text taught in this way in the white church? Yet the implications for how those with police powers ought exercise them, as well as the obligation of submission, are both in the text. Both Pharaoh and Rome are in Romans. Yet where has this connection been made that speaks of how God judges evil empires and glorifies himself? Those whose social location is in the Black church in America see these realities in the text more readily than many of us.

I cannot read while Black. I read from a social location that makes me more aware of some aspects of scripture while missing others. What I’ve come to recognize as I’ve grown older is how much I’ve been blind to in scripture. I can only understand the whole counsel of God with the whole church. While I cannot read while Black, I can read with the Black church, to listen to their readings, always searching the text to see if these things are so. And what I find in many instances is that they are, and I had not had eyes to see. Open my eyes, Lord!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Working Class?

Recently, I received a comment on Facebook to one of my previous posts asking about the “working class” part of the title for these posts, and why that modifier. Why not just “growing up in Youngstown.”

That’s a fair question. I’m not interested in fostering class warfare by any means. And I realize that Youngstown when I was growing up was comprised of lots of people who were not “working class.” And strictly speaking, my father worked in sales and lower management positions in insurance and retail, as well as for a time, with a manufacturer who eventually moved out of the Youngstown area. If anything, he probably earned less most years than those in labor positions.

However, the physical, and social location that shaped me significantly was growing up on the lower West side, in the shadow of the mills. Most of the fathers on my street worked either in the mills or some other labor job. Likewise for many of the fathers of children in my elementary school. It was different by the time I got to Chaney, where some of the student body was from more middle class, and at the time, suburban parts of the West side. I was aware of the difference — in clothes and life experience.

This series of posts began when someone asked me what it was like growing up in working class Youngstown. It led to some thinking about the values and experiences that I think shaped many of our lives–from food to family to faith and values of hard work, self-reliance, and the love of beauty in a life that was often hard and harsh. We loved Mill Creek Park and Idora Park as oases from all the mills along the Mahoning River. We loved music, and dances, and art as things that made the hard work worth it. I don’t think we were alone in loving those things but I think they had a particular meaning for those of us who grew up in working class neighborhoods.

What has impressed me is how rich the life experiences of growing up in my working class neighborhood were. Sometimes I think “working class” or “blue collar” people are thought of as culturally impoverished. Yet my reading about these things points to “athenaeums” where workers took classes to improve themselves and their knowledge of the world. Some of the sharpest and most creative people I’ve met come from these backgrounds. In our neighborhood, many parents, though tired from work, cared about our homework, took us to libraries, and showed up at parent nights at school because they wanted us to succeed.

We may not have always traveled to far-flung places, but we appreciated a day at the lake, an overnight at Niagara Falls or staying in tourist cabins where we brought our belongings in shopping bags, and not fancy suitcases. I don’t think we thought much about what we didn’t have, but rather lived grateful for any enjoyment we could snatch from life that revolved around hard work at home or the factory.

So, while the things I write about have Youngstown as a common thread, when I write about things like field trips to Stambaugh Auditorium or neighborhood bars or family grocery stores, I’m writing out of the particular place and community within Youngstown where I grew up. I’ve had a lot of experiences since leaving the Valley and I work these days among highly educated folk. But I carry those “growing up” years in my heart and outlook on life.

Writing about it and interacting with so many who have shared these experiences has helped make more sense of life. A philosopher by the name of Kierkegaard once said that “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Maybe another way of saying that is that understanding where you have come from helps you know where you must go. I hope these posts, and the conversations we have around them help us all a bit in that way.